The UN, Bryant or the Warring Factions: Who is in Charge in Liberia?

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 24, 2004


The death of a civilian in Buchanan at the hands of rebel fighters while the UN troops were present in the city raises some serious questions as to the effectiveness of the UN peacekeeping force in Liberia six months after its arrival in the war-torn country.

The deployment of UN troops with a Chapter VII mandate raised hopes that the 14 years of war was coming to a term. It was reasonable to expect that Jacques Klein, the UN, would ensure that by now peace was reigning throughout the country. Liberians also hoped that General Opande, who should have learned some good lessons in Sierra Leone after his fiasco in Liberia in the 1990s, would come back to Monrovia with a new determination to never allow again ragtag armies to take advantage of civilians.

Unfortunately, it seems like déjà-vu. If the safe-heaven of Monrovia is calm and runs smoothly, warring factions still control much of the countryside. If fighting between rebel armies has stopped, life has not changed in the rural areas.

The country is slowly but surely sliding into this dangerous era where everyone becomes comfortable with a false sense of peace and security. Fighters are still carrying their guns while their bosses are emptying the national coffers. The country is back to where it stood in the 1990s, with uncertain outcome.

A few months ago, speaking at the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Washington, DC, human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe likened this type of government of appeasement to a situation where the criminals not only get the ransoms but also manage to keep the hostage. Rebel leaders live in the comfort of Monrovia. They occupy the most important positions in the government but their armies still control the country. They got what they wanted but gave nothing in return. After two false starts, the United Nations seems to have no concrete plans for disarmament. The more then 12,000 troops seem to be the ones encamped while rebels roam around the nation.

The disarmament process that was scheduled months ago is yet to get underway. There seems to be no concrete plan. The peace process is at a standstill. UN troops have been in Buchanan for months but rebels are still holding their guns in that city? Is this a new type of confidence building that ECOMOG started in 1992 with General Ishaya Bakut and led to the deadly Octopus?

Many of the current rebel leaders worked with other factions in the 1990s and are now masters in manipulating the political process. Already, there are talks about prolonging the tenure of the transitional government. If allowed, the factions would get rid of the Bryant administration and prolong their hold on power until they have created safety nets – enough cash cushion and a political arrangement that would spare them any form of accountability -. A common complain from the factional leaders is that Bryant runs a shadow cabinet with his advisors. Some insiders in the Bryant camp deny this but add that many appointees still give their loyalty to their factions rather than consider themselves as officials of a national government and can therefore not be fully trusted.

Accusations of corruption, ineffectiveness and cronyism are piling up, justified or not. Slowly but surely, a case is being made against Bryant just as in the 1990s when warring factions manipulated the peace process, dismissed transitional leaders and prolonged their control on government. The leaderships may have changed but the three factions that now control the transitional government are exactly the same as the ones in the 1990s.

The intervention of the UN had given hope that the international body would not fall for the same gimmicks that derailed the peace process under the command of ECOWAS. However, it seems that Liberia is again headed on the same path of uncertainty, with a leader with no real powers, factions controlling everything and a peacekeeping force on a standby. Sooner or later, there is bound to be a clash of some sort. The warring factions would have their way. They would put Bryant aside, go to “new peace talks” and select a new chairman.

The danger in the current situation is that no world power, such as Britain in Sierra Leone or France in Côte d’Ivoire, is directly in charge of the military situation. This is indispensable if peace enforcement ever has to be considered. If fighting were to break-up in Monrovia or any part of Liberia, it is uncertain that General Opande or Jacques Klein would have the authority to enforce peace by committing troops from Bangladesh or China to combat without an OK from their governments. It’s even unlikely that the UN would start a peace enforcement on its own, something it has never done before.

The fact that after the clash in Buchanan between civilians and fighters General Opande, rather than arrest the fighters and disarm them “appealed” for calm and let everyone walk away sets a dangerous precedent. After ECOMOG sat by and allowed ULIMO factions to fight in Bomi in the 1990s, the warring factions reached the conclusion that they could do anything and this is how, with ECOMOG still present, they launched their attack on Monrovia in April 1996.

The UN missed a chance to set an example in Buchanan. But in the absence of a major military power, the UN forces may not be able to carry out their mandate of peace enforcement. This may explain why no disarmament is going on and there are no plans of any sort as to how disarmament would take place.

Monrovia is again the only safe heaven in the country. Six months after being selected, with rebel leaders occupying strategic positions in the government, Bryant is still confined to Monrovia. The only people free to move around are the rebels and their leaders and the UN.

This is Liberia best chance to peace. The UN must play its role and start disarmament. The warring factions have to submit to disarmament. And it is time that Bryant gets out of Monrovia and let Liberians in the interior know there is a new government. If the UN and the SSS cannot protect him outside of Monrovia, they have no reason being there. And if the warring factions cannot guarantee the safety of superintends and other government civil servants in “their” areas, they have no business being in government and spending taxpayers money.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that Liberia is still at war. And that could be dangerous.